Is 'in vitro meat' moving closer to the menu?

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- In a laboratory in the Netherlands, stem cells from cows are being grown into what researcher Mark J. Post says will be the first so-called "test-tube burger" -- comprising the tiny pieces of tissue-engineered, or "in vitro," meat -- that he and his colleagues aim to cook and taste as early as this October.

By this summer, California researcher Patrick O. Brown says, a company he's helped start will bring to market a revolutionary new plant-based substitute for a meat or dairy food -- he's not yet sharing specifics -- that "can't be distinguished from the animal product it replaces, even by hard-core foodies."

The scientists are on the leading edge of a movement to dramatically change how the world grows and consumes meat, something they say must happen, one way or another.

"Animal farming is by far the biggest ongoing global environmental catastrophe," Brown said on a recent Sunday at a news briefing for journalists from around the world at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attended by some 5,000 delegates and 700 media people in Vancouver.

He and Post were part of a panel of four experts who later that day presented a symposium titled, "Meat without Animals: Test-tube Burgers and More."

Brown, a biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, wants to see a world without animal farming, because "in every conceivable way, it's inefficient and destructive."

Inefficient, in that it takes many pounds of grains, and many, many gallons of water, to make a typical quarter-pounder. Destructive, he said, citing sobering U.N. statistics, that show animal farming takes up about 30 percent of Earth's land, accounts for more than 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, is the largest source of water pollution and the biggest threat to biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the world's appetite for meat is expected to double by 2050.

Brown called animal agriculture, mostly unchanged for centuries, as "a sitting duck for a disruptive technology."

That's why, with backing from a Silicone Valley venture capital firm, he's launched two startups to create and market alternative foods that, like him, are vegetarian.

Of course, the market already has plenty of meat substitutes and non-dairy "cheeses," but he says they're not very good and they're expensive, and they're marketed to people who've already chosen to be vegetarian or vegan for health or ethical reasons, not to the mainstream.

The products he plans will compete head-on with animal products by being "high-value, protein-rich, nutrient-dense human foods that appeal to consumers" -- stand-ins for everything from bacon to cheddar.

Post, of Maastricht University, said that he hopes Brown and others are able to fix the problems of animal agriculture with plants. But because he believes many people want real meat, his research is about producing that in a more efficient, less environmentally degrading way.

Cows are only about 15 percent efficient at making meat from grains and other foods, he said. Making beef under more controlled conditions could feed a lot more people while using fewer resources, saving the grains for human consumption as food as well as biofuel. (Their aim is to grow meat with vegetable-based nutrients, perhaps involving algae.)

With backing of $330,000 from a "reputable," non-food-industry funder he's not yet identifying, his team is working to grow enough muscle cells to show that "cultured meat" is possible.

Already, they've grown bovine stem cells into tiny strips about an inch long and 2/100ths of an inch thick.

They'll need thousands of these to make a burger (the golf-ball-sized goal sounds more like a slider, and an expensive one at that). But that's just one of many challenges.

Growing stem cells happens in labs all over the world, where some researchers envision being able to make replacement organs for humans.

Bits for ground beef, the most popular meat in the U.S., look to be relatively easy. (Post got laughs when recounting how they started with pig cells, planning to make sausage, which can be "hardly recognizable as a meat product" anyway).

But muscle cells on an animal grow because of conditions that scientists have to figure out how to create in the Petri dish. Post described using electric currents to "exercise" the cow-muscle cells, and treatments ranging from administering caffeine to withholding light to get them to make more myoglobin, which gives meat its red color.

"Right now, it's sort of a pinkish-yellowish," he told journalists. "The color is an interesting issue."

But, as he said later, it's also a scientifically controllable one. His part of the talk touched on possibilities including lowering the saturated fat and cholesterol of various meats, even creating custom combinations of meats.

His presentation illustrated the ultimate goal -- making "big slabs of meat" -- which were fancifully depicted as octagonal steaks, on round ceramic "bones."

Even if he does taste that burger this fall, cultured filet mignons are a long ways off. They will be expensive, as will all the research it'll take.

"But what's the cost of traditional meat production?" asked Nicholas Genovese, a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri-Columbia who organized the symposium. He includes in that the costs of dealing with outbreaks of food-borne illness and other human health woes associated with animal foods.

One of the issues he stresses is the ethical one of millions of animals being killed. His research, in fact, is funded by a grant from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in 2008 offered a $1 million reward for the first researchers to make in vitro chicken meat, indistinguishable from the "real" deal, and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012.

That offer stands and might be extended at a PETA meeting in Los Angeles in April, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in a recent phone interview from Washington, D.C. "Originally, we thought we'd never have to pay out," she said. "Nobody had heard of (in vitro meat). We wanted to boot it into the public consciousness."

Now, she says, "We're feeling very good" about the research progress that's been made. "If this allows them to get rid of cruelty to animals, fabulous."

She's well aware that the idea of in vitro meat can stir strong reactions from everyone from Midwest farmers to home cooks, but says, "Everybody fears change," and points out that many foods such as soy milk were once little-known.

The AAAS panelists included KeShun Liu, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who talked about the next generation of extruded meat "analogs" that mimic the fibers of real chicken and turkey. (He said to look for products soon from Maryland's Savage River Farms).

The panelists agreed they're not advocating for legislation or subsidies; they're just working for alternatives for consumers.

Some acceptance of these new alternatives may be a matter of language. At the AAAS meeting, Genovese stressed, "In vitro meat will never be produced in the 'lab.' " As beer is made in a brewery, he has proposed calling meat-production facilities of the future "carneries."

(Email Bob Batz Jr. at bbatz(at)post-gazette.com.)

(Contact Bob Batz Jr. at bbatz@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)